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Is CPS abusing probation?

The lawsuit filed last week against CPS closings and turnarounds highlights two central issues – the charge that the district is systematically neglecting neighborhood schools, and the longstanding contention that CPS uses probation to undermine local school councils.

According to the lawsuit, filed by nine LSC members with backing from the teachers union, CPS has failed to follow requirements in school code that LSCs at schools on probation be provided with plans that specify deficiencies to be corrected and with budgets targetting resources to carry out the plans. (This issue was first discussed here in November.)

According to the Tribune, CPS says they’ve “provided support to these low-performing schools over multiple years to boost student improvement.” Have they?

Tilden High, now slated for a”turnaround” by CPS, has been on probation for eight years. During that time there have been “drastic budget cuts,” amounting to a half-million dollars or more each year, according to LSC member Matthew Johnson, a plaintiff in the lawsuit.

Drastic cuts

The school has lost English teachers, math teachers, a computer lab teacher, a librarian. It’s lost funding for its auto shop and its woodshop – leading some kids to drop out, he said.

Johnson is bitterly disappointed that CPS isn’t using a $5.4 million federal school improvement grant won by Tilden to bring in an outside partner for the school. Instead CPS is holding on to the money, in order to pay itself to replace the school’s entire staff.

Dyett High School, on probation for seven years and set to be phased out, was set up to fail from the start, as Matt Farmer has argued – established in 1999 to take struggling students cast off from King Prep, and seriously destablized with a new set of students when Englewood High was closed in 2005.

Even so, says LSC member Jitu Brown, the school worked with community partners to establish a restorative justice program that produced the largest reduction in violent incidents in any city school – and a college readiness program that produced one of the district’s largest increases in college admissions.

But when private grants supporting the program expired, CPS turned down the LSC’s request to take up the ball, said Brown, who’s also education organizer for the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization.

The school has lost four teachers in the past two years, in addition to its assistant principal and a counselor; there’s now one counselor for 300 students. “When Dyett improves student culture, [CPS doesn’t] support the program; when Dyett’s scores start to go up, they take away teachers and counselors,” Brown said.

Probation: remediation or political control?

Probation was intended to be a program of remediation, but critics have long maintained that CPS used it as a political tool to centralize power. It’s pretty clear they haven’t used it to improve educational outcomes.

Parents United for Responsible Education made the case in a 2004 report, which showed that CPS went beyond the provisions of the Illinois School Code regarding probation, using it to take control over school improvement plans and school budgets away from LSCs.

The law limits the school board’s role to identifying deficiencies at the school which must be addressed in the school improvement plan and approving budgets with expenditures targeted to correct those deficiencies, according to the report.

“Few LSCs have ever seen the corrective action plan which is supposed to be guiding schools” to help them get off probation, PURE reported in 2004. That’s exactly what LSC members are saying today. (Ten years ago, CPS stopped attending advisory committee meetings where these concerns were being aired, PURE reported.)

Probation was one of two main methods of getting rid of democratic school governance, according to the report. The other was establishing new schools without LSCs under Renaissance 2010.

That strategy also violated the law, according to PURE. State law required LSCs to remain in place when schools were converted in buildings that had LSCs. PURE and LSC members sued CPS on that issue, but the case was dismissed for lack of standing, and its merits were never considered.

Research has consistently shown that most LSCs function well, that they provide accountability, contribute to academic improvement, raise money and building community partnerships. Significantly, most principals strongly support them. The low-income schools that have shown steady progress over sustained periods have LSCs.

Central office interventions have fallen far short of that record. Renaissance 2010 is recognized as a failure, and very expensive turnarounds have produced results that haven’t matched the hype. The rhetoric about “putting children first” is brilliant but unconvincing.

The old provisions of the school code dealing with probation, like the new provisions on facilities planning, are designed to foster communication and shared responsibility. If CPS has been ignoring its legal mandates – if the district has failed to provide help to struggling schools — it should be held accountable.

And since there’s precious little public accountability under mayoral control and top-down reform, maybe the courts – and the legislature, too — need to step in.

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Category: CPS, school closings

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One Response

  1. Pamela Norman says:

    BIG BROTHER! Control the purse, control the minds. It’s everywhere!

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